Recovering from Stigma

New post on The Alcoholics Guide to Alcoholism

Recovering from Stigma

by alcoholicsguide

Our last blog “Addicts continue to Face Widespread Stigma”looked at the stigma towards addicts that still prevails in much of society.

As addiction can often seem to be fuelled at times by negative emotions such as guilt and shame, societal  stigma towards addicts and alcoholics may have a negative effect on seeking treatment and on recovery itself.

It stops addicts accepting their condition and in seeking help for it, in other words.

I came across an article from a couple of years ago that looks at how addicts even in initial stages of treatment, in detox and assessment, begin to recover from maladaptive self schemata, the type of negative self schema that societal views help perpetuate.

These schemata are partly shaped by how society reflects them. Hence in recovery it is essential to move from a maladaptive negative self perception and self schema to a more accepting, positive and realistic self schema of being a person in recovery. That of an ill person getting better.

This is often called a recovering self schema or sometimes called a spiritual self schema.

Thus it is essential for those addicts who do recover to move from a negative sense of self to a more positive sense of self – from an ill self schema to a recovering self schema. From being a negative using to a positive recovering self schema.

In fact this can also be translated into memory associations of the past too with positive memory associations of drug use being transformed into more realistic negative memory associations. These memory networks along with schemata play a huge role in recovery. In fact one feeds of the other. I feel good about myself and negative about the effects alcohol and drugs had on me, my family and wider society. This is useful to my recovery. Accepting me and the wreckage alcohol and drugs played on my life.

Self schemata are the vehicles by which we drive our lives, they are how we regulate our selves, our attitudes and behaviours.

Unless we develop a positive recovering self schema it will be very difficult to remain in recovery.

We have to have some emotional self catharsis, some spiritual awakening, some realigning of how we feel and think about ourselves and those around us, the society around us (regardless of how it feels about us).

It does not matter what the society thinks about us, their views are often based on ignorance and not having to live with or around addiction. As communities of recovering people we help with this catharsis, this chrysalis effect, this transformation from what we thought we were to what we think we are now.

This study (1)  ” The Self Schema and Addictive Behaviours; Studies on Alcoholic Patients.” shows how people with alcoholism in the initial stages of treatment move from a negative to a positive view of themselves.

The subjects had to perform three tasks that required manipulating personality traits with positive and negative connotations (a self-description task in which decision time was measured, an autobiographical task, and a recall task). The results of the first interview showed that (1) in their self-descriptions, alcoholics took more time than control subjects both to accept positive traits and to reject negative ones, (2) unlike control subjects, alcoholics considered more negative traits to be self-descriptive than positive traits, and (3) unlike controls, alcoholics recalled more negative traits than positive ones.

By the second interview, the results for the alcoholic subjects on the autobiographical and recall tasks had changed: (1) they now described themselves more positively and less negatively than on the first meeting, (2) they recalled a marginally greater number of positive traits and a significantly smaller number of negative traits, and (3) the differences between the alcoholics and controls indicated an improvement in the alcoholics’ self-perceptions.

“Persons who are perceived negatively by society, especially ones who belong to social minorities, may be influenced by those perceptions and thereby generate negative perceptions of themselves.

In other words, the value judgments individuals make about themselves are in effect partially based on the judgments others direct at them (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998).

The social and occupational consequences of addictions also play a part in identity building by modifying and structuring the addicted individual’s self-schema. According to Markus (1977), as people accumulate personal experiences of a given type (addictive behaviors, for example), their self-schema becomes more and more resistant to inconsistent or contradictory information.

Everything an individual does in an attempt to organize or explain his or her own behavior in a given domain thus contributes to the formation of cognitive structures about the self, which Markus called self-schemata (Markus, Crane, Bernstein, & Siladi, 1982; Markus & Nurius, 1986 ; Stein, Roeser & Markus, 1998). The self-schema can thus be conceived of as a structure that enables generalizations and theorizations about the self based on the categorization of one’s own recurring behaviors and those of others. It gives each person a clearly defined idea of the type of person he or she is in a particular domain. For a given facet or aspect of life, subjects may possess a self-schema of a certain type (masculinity, academic achievement, successful career, independence).

Markus and her collaborators (1977; Markus & Smith, 1981; Markus, Smith, & Moreland, 1985) defined the essential properties and functions of a self-schema: (1) evaluate new information, (2) process information about the self (judgments and decision making) with greater ease or certainty, (3) retrieve behavioral proofs, (4) predict future behavior on the dimension in question, and (5) resist information that goes against the dominant schema.

The present study on alcoholic patients sees the self-schema of these individuals (partly) as being determined instead by psychosocial variables rooted in the stigmatization they bear. In this view, the personality traits of alcoholics are expressions of their self-schema and are determined by the social context in which they live, not just by the characteristics of the cognitive processes at play.

Because of the particular category to which alcoholic patients belong, they are subjected to stigmatizing social evaluations. Stigmatization here means ascribing negative attributes to certain persons which discredit them and give them a negative self-image. The term stigma is a very old one, formerly used to refer to a mark made on the body, generally by a hot iron, for the purposes of exposing what was “uncustomary and detestable” in the moral character of the branded person (Goffman, 1975).

Addictive behaviors are a form of social disqualification that prevents the addicted individual’s full acceptance in society. One of the consequences for the addicted is withdrawal, which necessarily leads to awareness of their socially-marked status. Such marking tends to reinforce negative self-perceptions and self-images which, in time, may lead to the emergence of a highly discredited and degraded “self”, especially if the heavy drinker recognizes the need for therapeutic treatment.

The results of this study opens some new doors for investigation by pointing out the dynamic nature of the self-schema. The self-schema can hereafter be understood as an adaptive process, not a mere cognitive structure.”

This study’s although limited in some ways – it would  be more interesting to track subjects all the way through a treatment program based on the Minnesota Model for instance – shows how being among others like oneself, also in recovery can help change how the subjects though and felt about themselves. They were no longer alone.

There was a society of people like themselves, in the “same boat” and this help change their self schema, they shared aspects of personality with others, they had found the group they belonged too. This is a good point as it points to the social isolation that addicts feel prior to coming into recovery. It also helps in terms of self worth via a newly found “secure” attachment.

It points out that recovery is often best done in the company of others like yourself. One has a societal self as well as a personal, individual self. The need to belong is huge and healthy ultimately. We are social animals.

We generally change how we think, feel about and act in life via the help of others who have made the same, essential changes to their own self schemata.

The study also mentions that the self-schema is affected by various life events (particularly ones involving self-questioning). I would add that the 12 steps changed my self schema profoundly via the self examination required.

I went from a fanciful,  distorted, negative view of self to a more realistic, accepting and empowering sense of self, a self that could others find their true selves  too.

We need the help of each other.



1. Tarquinio, C., Fischer, G. N., Gauchet, A., & Perarnaud, J. (2001). The self-schema and addictive behaviors: Studies of alcoholic patients. Swiss Journal of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Revue Suisse de Psychologie, 60(2), 73.

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